There is such an avalanche, still tumbling, of mad fixation upon the overt and covert meaning of the works of Leo Strauss that one feels driven, just on principle, to avoid the subject of the Straussian Legacy altogether, and never to read even one of the old master’s books. The latest consideration of a reconsideration of Strauss is a favorable and manneredly contrarian review of Steven B. Smith’s Reading Leo Strauss. It is entitled “Neocon or Not?” and it is penned by Robert Alter. The reader can guess at the answer to Alter’s disingenuously provocative question.
Confronted with a critical wall of a thousand coats, Alter paints on his own, and the temptation for the blog-inspired reviewer of reviewers is to make a remonstrative parody of the dutiful act. This is especially the case as we are dealing, after all, with Strauss. How’s this for esoteric, one wants to cry — critiquing a corpus that spawned a movement critiqued for having misinterpreted it out of all sense, and doing so without the burden of the primary source itself?
Nietzsche said some men are born posthumously; Leo Strauss lives on almost without regard to his books. Like Hegel, he is read mostly through the osmosis of secondhand commentary. One would expect him to dim beneath so many sheets of paper. But, on an apparently daily basis, Strauss still burns, inveighed against for inspiring cold and calculating dorks of mostly Semitic origin to pursue global crypto-fascism, by means of the in-crowd allure of a crypto-philosophy. To wit, political philosophers in tight-cheeked, censorious regimes are understood to have written between the lines about their truths of power, and you, the clever reader, are understood to be able to be trained in the close reading necessary for a grasp of what those philosophers — and perhaps even Strauss himself — “really” tried to say.
Steven B. Smith, to the satisfaction of Mr. Alter, thinks this is bunk.
Such thinking [writes Alter] could scarcely be further from the vision of neoconservative policy intellectuals that the global projection of American power can effect radical democratic change. “The idea,” Smith contends, “that political or military action can be used to eradicate evil from the human landscape is closer to the utopian and idealistic visions of Marxism and the radical Enlightenment than anything found in the writings of Strauss.”
It is true enough that the point at which a neoconservative strides into folly, if he so chooses, is that at which he seeks to eradicate evil from the human landscape rather than seeking to eradicate certain evil humans from a particular landscape. But this distinction loses itself under Alter’s lead. He is too intent to sound the tocsin of moderation among antagonists, and to enlist Strauss in the refurbishment of a new social civility. Strauss’, we learn, is a philosophy
that might profitably be fostered in our own moment of political polarization, when a self-righteous sense of possessing assured truths is prevalent on both the right and the left.
Alter’s posture of moral-political refereeism is off-putting, here, in its insinuation that anyone with a sense of possession over assured truths is self-righteous. The notion is larded with ironic subjectives: “righteous” is a word he cannot let stand without the ego prefix; one is allowed only the “sense” that truth has been possessed, not the truth itself, as if truth-seekers sought to lasso rainbows; this miserly sensation is made incontrovertible, finally, by the mocking appearance of the word “assured.” Both on the right and the left, we are told in a feint of objectivity, there are fools convinced that truths can not only be guaranteed but hoarded.
Since we are not Strauss scholars, and it is therefore impossible for us to be Straussians, there is no harm in putting an ear to Strauss in this regard by means of a citation from the Wikipedia. There, the old man is read to say that
Nietzsche saw that “our own principles, including the belief in progress, will become as relative as all earlier principles had shown themselves to be” and “the only way out seems to be that one turn one’s back on this lesson of history, that one voluntarily choose life-giving delusion instead of deadly truth, that one fabricate a myth.”
Alter’s review is chock-a-block with progressively clement feelings about Strauss that slide toward a relativism of their own. Whether Strauss was or was not a neoconservative is a silly question, and to what extent he inspired the ostensible architects of that movement is too. People are inspired ultimately not by readings but by events, and though, for the particularly geeked-out among us, certain readings themselves can be events, no “Straussian” opportunity for the exercise of neoconservatism could have presented itself in, say, Yugoslavia, were it not for the overexerted energies of Slobodan Milosevic; and when Strauss or any other academic suggests that the ivory tower ought not serve as a brain trust for the imperial court one saves a lot of trouble simply taking them at their word.
Sometimes a whale is only a whale. Nietzsche understood the exhaustion of relativism, as he did many abstract things, in expressly physiological terms. “Even the claim,” he writes, “that they possessed wisdom, which has been made here and there on earth by philosophers, the maddest and most immodest of all claims — has it not always been to date, in India as well as in Greece, a screen above all?” The idea of wisdom itself — something that is not, as Jesus put it, “at hand,” but must be worked out — is esoteric and relativist. It offers the possibility that our world is a world of shadows, that the light forming our shapes comes from outside the cave. The idea that truth reveals itself only by exploration is an idea that is itself, by heavy implication, a report issued from the land to be explored.
At times perhaps [Nietzsche continues] a screen chosen with pedagogical intent, which hallows so many lies; one has a tender regard for those still in the process of becoming, of growing — for disciples, who must often be defended against themselves by means of faith in a person (by means of an error). Much more often, however, it is a screen behind which the philosopher saves himself becasue he has become weary, old, cold, hard — as a premonition that the end is near, like the prudence animals have before they die: they go off by themselves, become still, choose solitude, hide in caves, and become wise. What? Wisdom as a screen behind which the philosopher hides from — spirit? -
The end that is near to weary old philosophers, in my reading, is the end of philosophizing, the exhaustion not just of plays but with rehearsals and acting too. Spirit becomes that thing from which the old philosopher limps even after contact at a distance, grumbling I’m too old for this. Proper relativism is if nothing else hard work, and we can see in the unjudgmental and anti-intellectual turn of the postmodern pleasure classes an intuitive grasp of how it’s as pointless to have been Lacan, in this day and age, as it was to have been Augustine.
Nobody knows, nobody cares. The conduct of philosophy as encoding is, by this point in time, as trite as anything else done in such fashion — novel-writing being one of the more painful contemporary examples. The wisdom of retreating from all that rigamarole, in favor of taking things at face value, is the irony of ironies today, because it screens itself off from a triumph of pop self-consciousness. The Strauss fetish currently on tour in the public prints is a particularly self-aware version of this glass bead game.
In order for academics to be read by lay audiences — even educated ones — it is understood that the text must be dumbed down in some regard. A ten-volume set could be written by any eminent mind on a mere wrinkle of disciplinary doctrine or dogma. It was once declared that the ability to make generalizations without losing accuracy was the mark of a good historian. But this holds true for more than the historian just as it holds that in generalization something is always lost. Things change at distances, and at great enough distances things disappear.
An academic, like anyone else, cannot write two books at once, and if he wishes to preach beyond the choir he must speak in a broader tongue. To the extent that he thinks from moment to moment as if talking with fellow experts, any general work he publishes resonates with esoteric harmonies. The vast multiples of meaning that swim beneath the surface of things can be found everywhere if one looks deep enough. It is as naturally human to read between the lines as it is to write between them. To learn the good health and good manners of doing so, only so long and at such time as is proper, is to stave off not only the poorer readings of Strauss but the exhaustion of relativism itself.
James G. Poulos, essayist and doctoral candidate, holds his J.D. from the University of Southern California. His commentaries are found at Postmodern Conservative.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire